The SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference: My Annual (Re)Treat

Back in 2013 or 2014, a writer friend suggested that I join SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind, but it probably went something like this: That sounds so established. That’s for real writers, and I’m not sure that I’m enough.

I’m so glad that my friend brought SCBWI to my attention (Thanks, Sue!) and that I joined. As it turns out, members are writers and illustrators on every point of the publishing spectrum, from those who’ve published dozens of books to those who are unpublished. There’s a place for every writer who is passionate about writing and illustrating (and reading) children’s books. And yes, if you write or illustrate, then you are real and you are enough.

One of the things that I most love about SCBWI are the conferences which are skillfully organized by teams of children’s writers and illustrators. I’ve been attending the annual Mid-Atlantic Conference since 2014. Each one has been a different experience, depending on where I am in my writing life, who’s on faculty, and whom I happen to meet. But I always walk away with new knowledge, connections, and inspiration. Always.

Am I sounding like an ad for SCBWI? Really, I don’t enjoy being a saleswoman. I find self-promotion hard. I give away too many copies of my book. And I’m that mom who avoids fundraisers. If I’m enthusiastic about something, it’s only because I believe in it. (Like, I will spread the word when my daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies. Want any come January?)

Conferences are a good fit for me, because I enjoy learning and connecting with people in person. And who doesn’t love inspiration? Besides, I savor the get-away from life and a hotel room all to myself.

When I attended my first Mid-Atlantic Conference in 2014, I was so excited that I could barely sleep the night before. And when day came, I felt that I had met My People. People who understood the deep desire to create books for kids, were working hard to make that happen, and were helping each other along the winding road.

When I attended my fifth Mid-Atlantic Conference a couple of weekends ago, I felt all the more that I was with my people. People who understood what it feels like to have work rejected by editors and agents. People who keep going despite (and maybe even partly because of) the rejections. People who still have the deep desire, who are still working hard, who are still helping each other.

Why, this conference has become so much like a second home that… the morning of the conference, I grabbed my tote bag, stepped out into the hallway, and realized that… I still had my slippers on! Okay, maybe that was just absentmindedness at work, but in any case, this conference has become a writing home-base. I did change out of my slippers, by the way.

Over the course of two days, I met new people and hugged old friends. I filled up my notebook with so many craft ideas and inspirational words from writers, illustrators, editors, and agents who gave speeches, sat on panels, and taught workshops. I will, as I have in the past, turn back the pages to those notes.

Pat Cummings leading her workshop, “The Plot Thins: Getting Brutal, Getting Published… How Harsh Self-Editing Can Turn Unsold Projects Into Marketable Stories”

The wise and wonderful Pat Cummings gave the keynote address and led a three-hour workshop. Her words, especially, have continued to resonate:

The bottom line is do it. If you love it, put it down on paper. You’re 90% there. Somebody else will love it, too.” – Pat Cummings

And…

If you won the lottery today, would you still be doing it?” – Pat Cummings

And…

How long are you going to be on the planet?” – Pat Cummings

This year’s conference felt extra special to me. Ever since, I’ve tried to put my finger on why. It was likely due to several factors including the very lovely faculty and my own comfort level. More than anything, though, I picked up on an particularly kind, gentle vibe. I wonder if others who attended felt it, too.

Given the divisive state of this country, I appreciated all the more the haven that this conference is. I took solace in connecting with others who believe in the power of books to build bridges between people. During a time when I’m grieving for our country (and our world), it was healing to be in the presence of a people who are trying to birth beautiful books for our greatest hope: children.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. I hope to see some of you there next October!

Attendees browsing the faculty’s books

Until we meet again,

Amy

Meet My Writing Critique Group!

(from left to right) Me, Priya Mahadevan, Marc Boston, Jane Jackson

If you’d like to get to know my writing critique group, read on! This interview appeared in the spring issue of Highlighter, the newsletter for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). (Wow, that’s a mouthful!)

The interview is reprinted below with permission from Highlighter. Thank you to author Dionna Mann, Highlighter’s Content Editor, for interviewing us!

Photos credits go to Delaney Boston, Marley Boston, and Liana Tai.

Critique Group Spotlight: ImagineInk

Members

Amy Lee-Tai, Jane Jackson, Marc Boston, and Priya Mahadevan

How It Formed

In May 2014, Amy, Jane, and Marc met at a writing workshop led by Kathy Erskine at WriterHouse. Two months later, Amy contacted the others about forming a children’s critique group that nurtures diverse voices. ImagineInk was born! Priya joined in May 2017 after Amy learned of her through a local magazine. All members are committed to helping each other transform ideas from imagination to ink.

What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions.” — Priya Mahadevan

How It Functions

Each member sends a manuscript four to seven days before each meeting, with the understanding that sooner means more consideration. Every three weeks, usually on a Tuesday, they gather at a coffee shop downtown. While they remain flexible with the day of week, they meet during the school day since they all have young children. Meetings last about three hours. After some chitchat, they begin critiques. The person receiving a critique remains quiet (or is supposed to!) and takes notes. They share business news as time allows. Since they get along so well, their biggest challenge is not going off on tangents about their personal lives or politics. Amy, the former school teacher, is usually the one to keep them all on track.

What They Love About Their Critique Group

AMY: I feel lucky to be part of a diverse group filled with kind-hearted deep thinkers who are passionate about kids’ books and social justice. All of this shines through in their stories, critiques, and interactions. While meetings are meaty, the camaraderie and humor keep things fun; I leave feeling reenergized to do the hard work of writing and revising.

JANE: The shared experience, incredible support, humor, understanding, and fun combine to make this group shine. I have so enjoyed their wit and wisdom as I continue to grow as a writer. Also, these are three of the most thoughtful, kind, patient, and interesting people I know in Charlottesville.

MARC: I’m blessed to be able to commune with a fantastic group of creative, intelligent, and spiritual souls. It’s the personal connection I feel with each of them, which has grown over the years, that I hold dear. I trust their opinions, relish their support, and am energized by their open-minded objectivity, genuine hearts, and authentic spirits.

PRIYA: When I was invited to be part of this group, it seemed like I had already known the others for a long time. What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions. I am constantly amazed at the subject matter that inspires their writing and at the presentation of those ideas. This allows my own creativity to expand.

How They Have Grown as Writers

AMY: The group has served as a reality check regarding my characters. Do my young characters ring true? Their emotions and thoughts? Their motivations and choices? Their actions and reactions? Given their parental experiences and open hearts, these writers help me keep it real! Their rich use of language has also been instructive: Marc’s playfulness, Jane’s wit, Priya’s poetry. I learn more from seeing them shape their words over drafts than I would from merely reading a final draft.

JANE: The critiques have informed and improved, dramatically, my understanding of plot points, structure, and flow. I have learned to manage the action sequences, and do so with humor and fun phrasing, making my work more readable and enjoyable. I absolutely credit the group’s positive attitude and expertise in delivering such helpful critiques!

MARC: Our group is truly interested in seeing each of us flourish as writers. They hold me accountable! I write much more than I otherwise would, and they make great suggestions for each manuscript. They’re not afraid to be honest—always sending me back to the drawing board if a piece appears to be missing something. We’re a beautifully diverse group, which inspires me to be very mindful of seeing life and the world from a broader perspective.

PRIYA: In a word, accountability. This group has instilled in me a discipline to write, no matter what. We help each other tweak our pieces to a point that we feel confident enough to submit them. We each have a special something we bring to the table, and each of our perspectives ends up helping us grow not just individually but also as a collective.

Member Bios:

Amy is the picture book author of A PLACE WHERE SUNFLOWERS GROW, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Connect with her at amyleetai.com and on Instagram.

Jane writes middle-grade fiction along with some short stories and the occasional essay. While she plans to seek publication one day, for now, she’s simply enjoying the writing process. Jane can be found on Instagram and Twitter.

Marc is a freelance writer and the author of two picture books: THE GIRL WHO CARRIED TOO MUCH STUFF and WHAT ABOUT ME?. Find Marc at marcboston.com and follow him on Instagram.

Priya is the author of two picture books: PRINCESSES ONLY WEAR PUTTA PUTTAS and FEY FEY SAYS NO. Find more details at priyamahadevan.com and follow her on Facebook.

Two Different (But Connected) Worlds: Writing One Book and Building a Writing Career

During the 2013-2014 school year, I started to dip my toes back into the children’s book world.

I had published one book in 2006. So, I had gone through the process of researching, writing, revising, promoting, and sharing a book. I had learned an awful lot and, to this day, I draw from that amazing experience.

But I’d been out of the kidlit world for several years. Plus, picture books and the industry, not to mention the online world, had changed a great deal during the intervening years.

I felt that I was starting all over again.

Or really, just starting.

In 2006, I didn’t see myself as part of the kidlit world. I’m not sure I even knew there was a kidlit world!

For me, it was all about that one project, a beloved family project: writing a story to the best of my ability and working with my publisher to put out the best book we could. It was still a substantial undertaking, but for me, it was a self-contained world.

I was completely oblivious to writing organizations, critique groups, online presence, networking, agents… even books lists and awards. All of these were the furthest things from my mind. And for my purposes back then, that worked just fine.

It was a blissful existence.

******

Fast-forward to the 2013-2014 school year. My kids were growing up. They were pretty much done with picture books, but I wasn’t. I kept borrowing them from the library; I kept reading them in bookstores.

Duh! I wanted to write more books. In fact, I had already started writing one the previous year.

I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), an international organization. I joined WriterHouse, a local organization. These were big steps — to identify myself as a writer, even though I didn’t completely believe it.

I subscribed to writing blogs, bought craft books, borrowed stacks of picture books. And I devoured them.

That March, I attended the VA Festival of the Book, right here in Charlottesville, as I had before. But that year I went with the lens of a writer.

That May, I took a workshop at WriterHouse with author Kathy Erskine – my first ever creative writing workshop.

Still, I hadn’t really committed to doing this. Writing. Trying to publish more books. And building a writing career.

******

Then that July, I attended a local SCBWI gathering led by author Anne Marie Pace. At one point, she asked attendees to share their goals. My goals had crystalized sometime between Kathy’s workshop and Anne Marie’s gathering. These goals had been hanging out in my head, gathering courage.

When it was my turn, I said, “Join or start a critique group, build a website, and then query agents.”

There! I said it. To the whole group. I was now officially accountable, at least to myself.

And guess what? I’ve been doing it…

I started that critique group the next month. And I’ve been writing regularly ever since.

I built that website. Or rather my awesome designer Ashley Parkin built it with input from me.

I started to query agents and editors last April. (More on this in a future post.)

I’ve attended writing gatherings, workshops, classes, and conferences.

I even joined social media and started blogging. Who, ME?

Each of these steps over the past few years has made me stretch in new directions. Some of that stretching has been exhilarating. And some of it has been painful. All of it has taken some combination of courage, patience, and commitment (and chocolate).

All of it has made me grow.

I still have only one book, but I’m a different writer now. And I’ll continue to grow. The growth is never-ending which, in my book, is a pretty cool thing.

******

So, writing one book, and building a writing career – these processes have been connected, of course. And they’ve both been incredible. But they’ve been different.

Perhaps the biggest difference, other than the obvious ones of scope and intention, has been the level of initiative and independence required of me.

While working on A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, I had the guidance of my wonderful editor, Dana Goldberg (and the support of the team at Children’s Book Press, now an imprint of Lee & Low). We had a plan and, together, we tackled it.

Now, I’m the captain of my own team-of-one. As it should be, it’s on me to build this career.

Thankfully, I can call on support from various sources: my critique group, individuals in the kidlit world, my family, my friends. The fabulous folks at Lee & Low continue to help promote my book. I value all of this greatly, and I couldn’t do it alone.

But, of course, I hope to work with an editor again one day (and dare I say, an agent). There’s nothing like two (or more) people working together closely to bring a book into the world.

So, I’m digging deep and doing what I need to do. It’s a different kind of proud than holding a published book, but I’m proud nonetheless.

Because I’m sending my heart out there into slush piles. And because I’m trying.

If you’re also following a dream, keep at it! I’ll be right there with you.

Until we meet again,

Amy